March 2008


Another interesting article I read this week about cataloguing your library of books online.  There are already a few sites and applications out there which allow you to do this, such as the Visual Bookshelf application on Facebook, or Librarything.com .

The benefit and interest of such sites is that it’s a facility for sharing your reading interests with other readers, allowing you to review and discuss your favourite books, make links with others who have enjoyed the same books as you, and through them to recommend and be recommended other books you might like.  It’s basically a global online book club, and just one of the really interesting ways in which publishing is moving into the new millennium, proving, in my opinion, that there will always be room for the humble printed book in our new digitalised era.

The problem with the sites that already exist, however, is that you have to enter each title in your library individually.  Given that those most likely to use these sites are those most likely to be avid readers with extensive collections of books, you can imagine that this becomes very time-consuming.  I’ve only managed to get round to adding 15 or so titles to my Visual Bookshelf on Facebook and those titles are far from representative of my whole library.  So it was interesting to hear about a new site which is being trialled at the moment: Book Rabbit.

It differs from the other sites mentioned in several ways.  First of all, it will have a commercial function, with users being able to order books through the site or to place orders with their local bookshops, but it also aims to be a flexible online community of readers.  So rather than having to laboriously add your books in one by one, you will apparently be able to take a photograph of your bookshelf, upload it, and with some fancy technology Book Rabbit will somehow be able to read the titles on the spines of your books and add them in automatically  (of course, I would have to rearrange my shelves first so that all my books would actually be visible, they’re a bit higgldy-piggldy at the moment!).  Then you can create a network with other readers who have at least one other book in common with you, and actually ‘browse’ their shelves and get their recommendations.  You are also able to define and categorise your books yourself, so that if you consider a book normally pidgeonholed as ‘science-fiction’ to also be a really good ‘romance’, you can say so, thus potentially introducing readers to genres and books they would never normally have picked up in a shop.  There will also be features such as video interviews with authors.

I think it sounds like a really interesting concept, and something I would definitely try.  It seems to combine so many of today’s big phenomenons: online social networking and marketing, youtube style videos and user-led content.  It is good to see people in the publishing industry being inventive with the (relatively) new media of the internet, and making use of it in a creative way, rather than just bemoaning that the digital era will surely be the end of printed books.  I think this shows that it definitely doesn’t have to be, but that with new technologies publishing can expand and diversify in exciting and profitable ways.  It will be interesting to see what happens when Book Rabbit develops past its beta stage and is made public in April.

This sort of links in with the debate about e-Books and digital readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for another time.

Last weekend I read Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, has been promoted by Richard and Judy and generally received a lot of hype… frankly I wasn’t that impressed by it.  The basic premise and idea of the book is really interesting, but it just didn’t deliver for me.  It is set on the South Pacific Island of Bougainville at the beginning of the 1990s in the midst of a civil war.  The narrator, a young girl called Matilda, is struggling to understand the changes happening on her island; the complex relationships between natives and colonists, white and black, faith and atheism, innocence and experience.  The only white man left on the island, Mr. Watts, takes it upon himself to teach the school, and his teaching mainly consists of reading the children Great Expectations and letting them discover Dickens’ world of eighteenth century London.  The book becomes the childrens’ way of escape from the confusing reality around them, but the civil war is always lurking in the background and tragedy ensues when fiction and reality become confused.

So, as I said, a really interesting idea and setting.  What Jones does portray well is the impact a book can have on someone, and the richness of discovering a completely different world from your own: ‘I had come to know this Pip as if he were real and I could feel his breath on my cheek.  I had learned to enter the soul of another’.  There are also times when the instability of their existence on this island in paradise is also poignantly highlighted: ‘ When our parents spoke of the future we were given to understand it was an improvement on what we knew. For the first time we were hearing that the future was uncertain.  And because this had come from someone outside of our lives we were more ready to listen.’

However, a lot of the time I felt that there was just a little too much left for the reader to infer for himself.  I didn’t become absorbed in the book as Jones describes Matilda becoming absorbed in Great Expectations, and as I have been absorbed in many other books.  Maybe part of the problem was that I didn’t know enough about the context of this Civil War, but I felt more information could have been given without it having been intrusive.  I always find that the best books are those where you come away feeling that you really know the characters and the situation they are in, and really caring about them, and that you have also learnt something about human nature, history and about yourself almost without realising it.  I think in this book, because the narrator herself was not fully aware of the context she was living in, the obtuseness and insular, almost blinkered style of narration was perhaps deliberate, but it left me frustrated.  I felt I didn’t really know what was going on in the background, and therefore the characters and their lives weren’t as important to me as they should have been.  I think it should be possible for a really skilled author to get across the innocence and naivety of his narrator without at the same time leaving his reader in the dark.  Yes, as the book progressed, I learnt and understood more as Matilda did, but I just felt it wasn’t as eloquent and poignant as it could have been.

The Publishing News magazine this week had an article about the overall economic growth of the book market in 2007.  Now, I make no claims to fully understand the economic statistics, but a couple of things really stood out:

‘Volume growth came in particular from hardback fiction (+19%) … The growth in hardback fiction came mainly from the adult edition of Harry Potter – excluding that title, the sector grew 4% by volume in 2006′

‘The value of children’s book purchases increased by 11%.  HP7 drove the increase in the children’s book market.  Excluding Harry Potter, spending on children’s titles was down 4%, and volume purchases flat.’

If I’m interpreting this correctly, then I think it is incredible that a single title (or a single series, rather, as it doesn’t specify HP7 alone) could account for 15% of volume sales in adult hardback fiction.  It just shows how powerful the Harry Potter phenomenon has been, and that is not necessarily a bad thing – I love the series as much as the next person.  But I also think that it is a shame that once you have removed Harry Potter, spending on children’s books was down – there has been so much hype about Harry Potter getting children to read who hadn’t been interested in reading before, but if that interest does not spread into other authors, then it is a limited success.  There are so many fantastic children’s authors out there, many of whom are in some ways superior to J. K. Rowling but whose books would probably appeal to a similar audience (I’m thinking of Diana Wynne Jones, The Edge Chronicles series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddel, and Tamora Pierce, to name just a few of my favourites) who deserve a larger share of the market (although admittedly, those I’ve named are all pretty successful in their own right).  And in general, it is so important to get children reading proper books, rather than just endless Mary-Kate and Ashley style spin-offs which take very little time to read and are probably never re-read.

So while I think the Harry Potter phenomenon is a fantastic thing in many ways, and while the statistics above demonstrate well the continuing power of books, lets hope that the children who were so enchanted by Harry continue to be inspired by other authors now that the last book is finished.

Yesterday I finally got to go to the British Museum’s exhibition on The First Emperor, having booked the tickets back in November.  The exhibition was good, if a little small and crowded, but the things they had on display were beautiful and if you bothered to have the audio guide (which I did) and to read all the information you could find out a great deal.

I have to say, what impresses me the most about the Terracotta Army is the scale and its context.  In 221BC Ying Zheng had conquered a pretty large chunk of modern China and declared himself the First Emperor of China.  He’d already started building his tomb twenty years before when he became King of Qin, his father’s kingdom, aged only 13.  The tomb complex itself, with at least 7000 Terracotta soldiers, horses, chariots, birds, acrobats, state officials, musicians and more, covers 56 km sq.  To create such a thing required a huge amount of organisation and unprecedented control of resources.  The First Emperor is known to have introduced reforms such as standardising weights and measures, the currency and the written script in order to rule his empire more effectively.  Seeing the world he created for himself to rule in the afterlife makes these acheivements more believable, and more awe-inspiring.  In Western Europe we are used to hearing about the Roman Empire as the great civilisation of the past, but this Eastern Empire surely must have rivalled Rome.

The statues are mass-produced, which in itself is impressive because I think many people think of mass-produced art as a modern phenomena, yet every figure and animal was finished by hand and is distinct.  It is a completely different technique from the marble carvings of Rome, yet just as beautiful and realistic.

I think it is extremely interesting to think about history from a global perspective, to think about the rise and fall of civilizations and to compare the progress of human societies in different parts of the world at the same time.  The length and scale of human history and achievement should be hugely inspirational.

I thought I should probably post the review I was talking about yesterday up. Babara Kingsolver is a well-established and successful author, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still be introduced to new audiences!

Since I first read one of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels last Easter, she has become one of my favourite authors. She is a contemporary American author whose poetic and elegant writing has the ability to inspire and to make you think about issues that otherwise would never have occurred to you. The last book of hers I read was The Prodigal Summer, and this was also the one that resonated with me the most profoundly. It is a slow-moving but beautifully told tale centred around three main characters living in Zebulon County, Appalachia. Each character’s story has a particular title, given in the chapter headings used for each, and it is fascinating, as the story progresses, to consider the relevance and importance of these titles to the themes and characters of each story. Predators refers to the story of Deanna Wolfe, a wildlife biologist who works as forest ranger for the Forest Service, clearing the trails of the nature reserve and running off the hunters who come out of season. Her passion is coyotes and their place in the ecosystem and she is overjoyed when a new pack migrate into the region; when she meets and falls for a hunter whose hatred of coyotes matches her love, her solitude and self-assurance are challenged. Moth Love is the story of Lusa Maluf Landowski, an entomologist who only recently moved to the area when she married a local farmer, and has to deal on her own with the politics of her family-in-law and of farming when her husband dies, with unexpected consequences. Old Chestnuts focuses on Garnett Walker, an elderly man whose ambition in life is to produce a new variety of the American Chestnut tree made extinct by a blight, so that his family’s lands can once again be covered by their native tree. His disagreements with his neighbour Nannie Rawley over everything from pesticides to religion turn his life in a new direction he would never have thought possible in his old age. This description may not sound like the most enthralling read, but through these simple stories Kingsolver addresses very interesting themes with incredibly lyrical prose. Kingsolver originally trained as a biologist, and her passion for the natural world is evident in this as in all her other books. The theme binding the three stories together is the land that they live on, the impact humans have made on it and what can be done to preserve, renew and restore its natural state. If you are at all interested in nature, ecology or biology, this novel is the most eloquent and profound explanation of why the environment is important you will probably ever find. Yet it also deals very effectively with human relationships, with the importance of love and friendship and the complications and heartaches that human relationships involve. Kingsolver’s prose is often understated, but all the more effective for that. By the end of the novel, when all three strands are beginning to be more closely plaited together, you will have been converted to her way of thinking without even realising it. The message and atmosphere of the novel will stay with you long after the intricacies of the plot have begun to fade from your mind. Kingsolver writes about places, characters and themes she is clearly very knowledgeable and passionate about, and this makes for a deeply satisfying and thought-provoking read.

Other novels by Barbara Kingsolver include: The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven and Animal Dreams. She has also written some short story collections and works of non-fiction, including Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life, her account of her family’s attempt to live for a year only on produce grown or raised by themselves or in their local neighbourhood.

When I was in Year 4 or 5, I nearly got locked in the school library over the weekend because I’d gone in there to finish reading The Cay by Theodore Taylor after the Saturday Open Day while my father looked round the science labs of the Senior School. My sister and I always used to (and often still do!) read books at the dinner table and the books on the shelves in my room are piled two rows deep. In a Year six assembly about what we wanted to be when we grew up I was an author; now I’ve come to realise that working behind the scenes to produce books and writing about other peoples’ books is far more my kind of thing. Today I was very proud to have a book review of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Prodigal Summer I wrote printed in my college magazine; it’s given me the nudge I needed to set up this blog and indulge in expressing my opinions on everything related to books that interests me!